Phil Leadbetter "The Next Move" Pinecastle
Bluegrass is a music largely comprised of kind, humble, and talented musicians and vocalists. While there are a handful of jerks among the gems, the overall feeling one senses whenever bluegrass folks gather is one of familial closeness.
Whether professional musicians, backroad jammers, or-the lifeblood-those who listen to and support the industry via their wallets, the bluegrass community is special and quite unlike any other I've been welcomed into.
Dale Ann Bradley greets you with a smile and a hug, whether she last saw you a month or five years ago. Del McCoury offers his hand as you approach. Jerry Douglas offers you a compliment, and the members of Special C, The Nightdrivers, and Flamekeeper josh and kibitz with you as if you've been acquaintances for years. A guitar player will cheerfully share a particular run with someone who is interested, while a banjo player is just happy someone has asked his advice.
It is a great, wonderful thing this bluegrass world we've created. Almost everyone is friendly and kind, open and approachable.
And within this community, few are held in as high regard as Knoxville's Phil Leadbetter. That he had a rough row to hoe for a couple years fighting cancer is certainly a factor; in a community that routinely rallies around those in need, few have received the support Phil did as he underwent treatment in 2011 and 2012.
But, Uncle Phil was a beloved member of the bluegrass family long before he hit hard times. When he was announced as the 2005 IBMA Dobro Player of the Year at the Ryman Auditorium, the place nearly came apart. Later that evening, Phil expressed to me how the award took him by surprise and how grateful he was for the recognition. Witnessed via the livestream, when Phil was again announced the award winner this past October, the reaction within the auditorium was just as heartfelt; I'm sure I wasn't the only one who teared up just a little.
In an industry replete with musicians who are blessed- through their own hard work, good musical genes, and an environment conducive to developing their skills- and whom are almost universally humble about their gifts, Phil Leadbetter stands out.
Last month, Phil released his third album, "The Next Move."
A founding member of both Wildfire and Grasstowne, Leadbetter had previously worked with JD Crowe as a member of the New South, Grandpa Jones, and Vern Gosdin. When he first became ill with what was eventually diagnosed as Stage 3 Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Leadbetter was playing with The Whites, and when he received a clean bill of health and was almost ready to start playing again, Dale Ann Bradley offered him a spot in her band, a position he maintains today.
"The Next Move" is not exclusively a bluegrass album. While several of the songs are obviously bluegrass, among them "Pull The Trigger" and "I've Never Seen a Love That Wasn't Blind," other tracks are comfortably in country territory. Doesn't matter a lick as the entire album is a very enjoyable adventure of sounds, all framing Leadbetter's mastery of his chosen instrument.
The hub-cap guitar isn't everyone's favourite, but in Leadbetter's hands, the instrument sounds beautiful. On "I'm A Modern Day Interstate Gypsy," a song featuring Ken Mellons on vocals, Leadbetter's lead breaks are gorgeous, and his backing fills complement Steve Thomas' fiddle and Sierra Hull's mandolin quite remarkably. A pure country truck driving song, this is one of the albums many highlights.
The majority of the tracks feature guest vocalists. Already charting, "Pull the Trigger" has Shawn Camp on lead, Steve Wariner sings the mining song "Hole in the Earth," and Leadbetter's east Tennessee buddies Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley sing "I've Never Seen a Love That Wasn't Blind," a Gulley-Tim Stafford song.
Con Hunley brings his Smoky Mountain country-blues to "Georgia On My Mind," while the always formidable John Cowan takes care of things on the album's powerful lead track, "I'm A Ramblin' Rolling Stone," on which he is joined by Sam Bush.
Marty Raybon and Joe Diffie are featured on the bluegrass gospel song "Baptism." "Jesus, My Old Dog, and Me" is a terrific Shawn Camp country performance, this time with his Earls of Leicester bandmate Charlie Cushman on banjo.
The instrumental lineup is certainly as impressive. "Just Joshin'" (no explanation necessary) is a lively cut featuring not only the only others to be named IBMA Dobro Player of the Year, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, but Kenny Smith, Sierra Hull, Tim Crouch (fiddle) and Cory Walker (banjo.) Phil's son Matt joins him on "Leadbelly" (I ain't touchin' that title), while Bela Fleck and Buck White, along with Mike Bub, Hull, Thomas, and Smith take "Sweet Georgia Brown" for a playful spin.
"The Next Move" closes with a telling interpretation of "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder." Unaccompanied, Leadbetter pours his soul into this one, and if emotion can be heard, it is here.
Phil Leadbetter has been through a battle for his life. Now that the sun is again shining on him, it is wonderful that his friends have rallied around to help him produce a great bluegrass-country album. Undoubtedly, Phil and his Dobro are the stars of the recording, but I'm guessing he would be the first to give substantial credit to those who assisted in the creation of "The Next Move."
Addendum: Somehow, I missed the news that Phil's cancer had returned this past summer, and he is currently undergoing a series of treatments all the while continuing to play regularly with Dale Ann Bradley. You can follow Phil's latest journey at his website www.UnclePhilOnline.com. My best to Phil and his family as they once again face challenges.